Exeter rediscovered the winning habit – but only just – on one of the two grounds where they have never experienced defeat in the Premiership. Worcester recovered after trailing by 14 points in as many minutes, exposing cracks in the foundations the visitors laid in winning the double last season.
Discipline is among the requirements when facing Exeter, but Worcester conceded five penalties in the opening 10 minutes and lost their hooker, Niall Annett, to the sin-bin. By the time they shook themselves down, they were the equivalent of two converted tries in arrears against a team it rarely pays to play catch-up against.
Exeter had lost their previous two Premiership matches and they were not themselves here, even losing lineouts after kicking penalties to touch. Their early tries came when Annett was serving time for a no-arms tackle, scored by Jonny Gray from close range and Ian Whitten on the right after Stuart Hogg’s break was taken on by Sam Simmonds, and they exploited their numerical advantage by pulling the Warriors from side to side.
Worcester, whose only home victory this season was against London Irish by a point in the opening round, responded by taking the game to the champions. They had made the early running only for Justin Clegg’s handling error to give Exeter the means to set up camp on the home line.
Worcester may have become established in the Premiership, but as leaseholders rather than freeholders, tending to lurk near the bottom rather than compete at the top, but in the final hour they looked the part.
Prompted by their scrum-half, Francois Hougaard, they started to dictate. He regularly changed the direction of play and Worcester found pockets of space in which to offload. They turned down the chance of three points, kicking for touch instead, only for Sam Skinner to win the lineout, but they kept probing for weak points and when Perry Humphreys passed to Oli Morris out of the back of his right hand, the centre shrugged off Joe Simmonds’s challenge on a 35-metre run to the line.
Duncan Weir, an early replacement for Billy Searle at outside-half, made a difference with his opportunism and he cut Exeter’s lead to four points with a penalty just before the interval.
Exeter returned stirred after half-time and Ollie Devoto rode Weir’s tackle to score his side’s third try, but Worcester did not fade away.
Exeter made uncharacteristic mistakes, not least missed first-up tackles which allowed Worcester to make ground. Devoto was in the sin-bin for a high tackle when Olly Woodburn retrieved the ball behind his own line: surrounded by opponents, the safest option appeared to be to touch down and concede a five-metre scrum, even though Exeter had three times been penalised at the set-piece.
Instead, he tried to fight his way back over the tryline. He eventually managed to but lacked support and Weir wasted no time in turning the ball over before helping himself to a try.
The conversion, sweetly struck from a narrow angle, again reduced the gap to four points but the outside-half then missed the opportunity to cut Exeter’s lead to a single point when he missed a 35-metre penalty with 62 minutes on the clock. The champions held on, but something was missing other than their England players.
“We need the confidence a tight win like this brings,” said the Chiefs’ director of rugby, Rob Baxter. “We have to become comfortable with being good.”